This is an article from the May-June 1994 issue: Native Americans

200 Unreached Peoples In Our Midst: A Legacy of Tears—A Future of Hope

200 Unreached Peoples In Our Midst: A Legacy of Tears—A Future of Hope

Do you know what comes to the Navajo reservation every summer?" The Navajo young woman asked during one of the seminars at Urbana '93. Without waiting for an answer, she said, with tears streaming down her face, "About 12 short-term missionaries for every Navajo Indian." She went on to explain that these well meaning short-termers were overwhelming the people and causing confusion with their different doctrines and practices.

Today there are at least 200 unreached Native American people groups in the U.S. and Canada.* The Navajos are not one of them. About 11% of the Navajos know Christ as Savior. They have a growing, culturally relevant church and they are reaching out to other tribes and even sending missionaries abroad.

Meanwhile, some 200 mission boards continue to work among the Navajos while no one is working among many of the yet unreached Native American people groups.

We at the U.S. Center for World Mission classify a people group as unreached if that people group does not yet have a culturally- relevant church that is capable of reaching the rest of the group without outside assistance. While individuals from many tribes have become Christians, too often the attempt at planting a church has resulted in no indigenous leadership, perpetual dependence on outsiders for financial support and almost no commitment to outreach.

Why So Little Success?

The early history of European settlers in America showed promise of something vastly different from that which we see today.

The first charter of Massachusetts, granted to the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629, stated as its purpose that "our said people may be so religiously, peaceably and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly conversation may win and incite the Natives of Country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian Faith, which... is the principle end of this plantation." In other words, the primary purpose of the Colony was to win Native Americans to Jesus Christ.

A number of early missionaries, most notably John Eliot (known as the "Apostle to the Red Men") and David Brainerd, made noble attempts to reach the aboriginal Americans. The very first Scriptures published in the New World were John Eliot's translation of the Bible into one of the Algonquin languages.


But these positive attempts to reach the indigenous people were quickly undermined by the greed and callous mistrust of other early European settlers. Native Americans traditionally held no concept of individual or private ownership of land. They believed it was a natural resource, to be shared just as are water and air, by all people. They were willing to share the land with these white settlers-- but the new inhabitants wanted it all to themselves. The conflicts that arose were inevitably won by the more numerous and better armed whites.

Some of these Anglos also saw all Indians as enemies, even slaughtering communities of Indians who had become peace-loving Christians. Thus, though some colonists were interested in evangelizing these native people, far more were interested only in eliminating them. In fact, the wholesale slaughter of these first Americans was condoned and even encouraged by the white man's government.

Next came the establishment of reservations, ostensibly to protect the land of the Indians. The reality was, however, that the Native Americans were being pushed from the land that the white man wanted onto less desirable land. When the white man decided that he later wanted that Indian land, the Indian was pushed again.

This is clearly illustrated by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which Native Americans were rounded up from reservations in the states east of the Mississippi and herded west to the newly created "Indian Territory." Indian Territory was to form part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907, accounting for the large Native American population in that state today. The "Trail of Tears" resulted when the Cherokees resisted their removal. Under the orders of President Andrew Jackson, some 16,000 were herded in a 9-month journey to Indian Territory. Only 12,000 made it.

White Men Break Their Word

The Black Hills of South Dakota is another case in point. Because the Indian people held these lands to be sacred, the white settlers decided to sign these Hills over to them by treaty, never to be taken away. But then the whites discovered gold in the Black Hills and another treaty was broken.

Through the years, some 408 treaties were signed between Indians and whites. All 408 were subsequently broken in whole or in part, by the whites. These Native Americans have consequently found it difficult to accept the religion of this white man who never kept his word.

Further atrocities, such as the "Sand Creek Massacre" (see the article on page 28) continued to drive a wedge between Native Americans and those Christians who wanted to share their faith with these people. Today, this history of atrocities is driving Native Americans back to their culture in a militant manner and away from the white man's culture.

Native social ills, Who is to blame?

The social problems of Native Americans today stem largely from their isolation on reservations where there is almost no opportunity for regular work. Unemployment on many of the larger reservations consistently exceeds 80%. Poverty often leads these people to spend what little money they have on alcohol in an attempt to forget their sorrow for a time. The suicide rate among Native American teenagers, the highest of any ethnic group in the U.S., is another significant problem.

Many whites tend to look down on these people because of the significant alcohol problem. But here again the white man cannot always wash his hands of blame. In one town on the edge of a South Dakota reservation in the 1950's there was no liquor outlet. The town council, made up of five whites (the population of 600 was half white, half Indian), was seeking a way to finance a new sewage system. One council member suggested that they start a community-owned-and- operated liquor store, sell alcohol to the Indians to make money, then incarcerate them when they became intoxicated, fine them and make more money at the expense of these down-trodden people. The council voted 4-1 in favor of the plan. The one who was opposed left the council that night never to return. The other four carried out the plan and that liquor store stands today as a monument to the greed and callousness of the whites, who continue to blame the Native Americans for the problem.

A Culturally Relevant Church is essential for success.

Amid all of this, there have been significant attempts to reach Native Americans. Many of these attempts understandably, have been unsuccessful because of the past history.

But many others have had only very limited success in reaching people because the churches they have tried to plant have not been culturally relevant. There are varying reasons for this. Most notably, early missionaries had no training in anthropology and little sensitivity to culture. In fact, many of the early missionaries felt that if these people were ever to become Christians, they must first become "civilized." And of course, civilization meant living like the white man. The past history raises serious doubt as to who was more civilized.

Later missionaries, while having a bit of training in anthropology, often did not have enough to be able to separate their culture from their Christianity. My wife and I fit that pattern when we landed in South Dakota in 1963, one in a series of missionary teams who carried on a ministry in the town of White River, on the Rosebud Reservation. The church building had been moved to its present location in the early 1950s. Church services were held and a few Sioux people met Christ. But just as in so many other cases, they stepped out of their culture in order to do so. They continued to live in their culture in all other areas of their lives but had difficulty relating their faith to their culture.

Attempting to change their culture has failed.

In many cases, it must be noted, the transporting by missionaries of their own culture to Native Americans has been at least in part intentional. For generations, the whole psychology of missions held that, since Indians were going to ultimately be assimilated into the white man's culture, we might as well be in the forefront and even help to make that happen. There are several reasons why this is faulty logic. Most notably, however, is that the premise is not true. And that is because Native Americans are the only minority group in the United States still dwelling on aboriginal land, their children often experience a native language upbringing and there is continuity of culture.

To be sure, a little more than half of Native Americans now live in urban areas, but the other 48% continue to adhere to their culture on the reservations. And those in cities tend to form new "pan-Indian" cultures, where their separate tribal identities fade but their "Indian-ness" remains strong. This presents the challenge of yet a new people group that must be reached in the city.

In accepting the premise that Native Americans would eventually become assimilated, missionaries were actually following the lead of governmental and educational leaders. Many of us learned in elementary school that America was the great "melting pot." This idea, however, is now passe. In more recent years, the U.S. has been more aptly referred to as the great "salad bowl," where many cultures co-exist, each maintaining its own identity. Native Americans never have wanted to be assimilated. And they are even more opposed to that concept today than they have been in the past.

A Reason for Hope The Example of NAIM

In the light of what has been said thus far, do we conclude that there is no hope? Certainly not. Some missions have clearly directed their approach in recent years toward establishing truly indigenous churches among Native Americans. One such mission is NAIM Ministries (formerly North America Indian Mission) located in British Columbia (U.S. address: Box 151, Pt. Roberts, WA 98281). NAIM has developed a strategy of asking new believers in a Native American culture to examine the Scriptures and decide what the church should look like in their culture.

Jim Hamilton, Personnel Director of NAIM, says that the mission has a 4-Phase strategy for church planting:

Phase 1 is a phase of building relationships. The premise here is that if the messenger does not have credibility, neither will the message. Hamilton says: "Native Americans find security in belonging rather than in material things. Therefore, we come relationally close enough that they are able to make the switch." The focus during this phase is on reaching men. This does not mean that women and children are neglected. Rather, the logic is that if the men are reached, the women and children will follow.

Phase 2 focuses on building the disciple. During this phase, the missionary role models what he wants to teach. This is not a "sit and teach" type of discipling. Rather, the emphasis is on doing with the disciple what the person wants to teach him.

Phase 3 emphasizes building the body. In this phase, it is time to start drawing together the body of believers. Notice that no church building has been put up and no church services have been held prior to this phase. Such services are only begun when there are enough believers to make a viable church. A plurality of eldership is the pattern. The missionary and a couple of other men now take responsibility for holding the body together. The form of how, where and when the church meets comes from the group of believers. During this phase, the missionary also tries to introduce this new body to the Native Evangelical Fellowship (NEF) in order to link up this body with other bodies of believers.

Phase 4 reveals itself as the church on its own. Now is when the questions are asked regarding how the work will be carried on. Who will serve as pastor? Will the missionary, one of the local men, or someone from outside the body be called?

Note that the mission never constructs a building. Usually the church meets in a home or a community hall. In a few cases, the fellowship has put up a building, but when they do, it is their decision, and they feel a sense of ownership.

What does such a church look like? Generally, the worship service will be orderly but spontaneous. There are no bulletins because the people don't find any reference to such in the Bible. The people will generally sit in a circle rather than in rows, although the Anglo- culture patterns may prevail if the people have had prior contact with Anglo churches. In such cases, they may feel, "This is what we need to be fully Christian." But even when that happens, other facets of the church are decidedly from their own culture.

The music will vary from tribe to tribe. Coastal native people tend to chant, using a 5-note scale. Inland people use a seven tone scale and relate well to country and western type music.

Some people groups have decided to use native drums in worship. When they begin to talk of this, the missionary will talk with them about the meaning of drums in their culture. If they have been traditionally used in spirit worship or in a way that would compromise their being used in Christian worship, they are encouraged to build new drums, dedicated to Christ. It is necessary to deal with both form and meaning in making any such decisions, thinking especially of the effect it may have on unbelievers.


The key to developing a culturally-relevant church then is contextualization. The church must fit the culture. The Bible does not say anything about such things as type of building, patterns of sitting, platforms that elevate the preacher above the congregation. These are cultural patterns.

One missionary to the Navajos found himself frustrated over the fact that no indigenous leadership ever emerged from among the people with whom he was working. As he expressed his concerns to some of the Navajo people, they told him that the simple matter of the pastor on an elevated platform made the people feel as though they were being looked down upon. They felt inferior because of something that had been imported from another culture. When the missionary picked his emotional self off the floor, he immediately changed the setting to what the people suggested, a circle, with no-one in a place of prominence. Very soon, individuals who would be reluctant to elevate themselves above their people began to emerge in a more subtle way as leaders.

In our limited space, we have only touched on a few things that, while so simple, can cause major hindrances to seeing the church established among unreached peoples. There is much more that we could share--but also much more to be explored.

And there is much more research that must be done in order to fully determine who are the remaining unreached people groups. Teams of researchers are needed to assist in this task. If we can finish the research, it is reasonable to expect that we can find the people and resources to do what NAIM and others are doing in order that there may be growing a culturally-relevant church for every Native American people group by the year 2000 A.D.

Art Everett and his wife Dorothy are the current directors of the Institute of Native American Studies located here on the campus of the US Center for World Mission. For more information on this institute and its goals read the article which begins in the next column.

The Institute of Native American Studies - Meet Art and Dot Everett

The Institute of Native American Studies, a ministry of the U. S. Center for World Mission, has been in existence for about 14 years. Dot and Art Everett have been serving as directors since 1992, and have set the direction of the Institute to be one of service.

The Everetts have indicated that their primary service is to the Lord Jesus Christ. Beyond that, they desire to be of service to all in His Body who are interested in seeing the Great Commission fulfilled among Native American people groups. They emphasize that they are still learning and would like to share what they learn with others. For this reason, networking is an integral part of their strategy and goals.

The purpose of the INAS is to help facilitate the establishment of a culturally relevant church among every Native American people group in the Western Hemisphere.

The goals of the INAS include:

  1. Facilitating on-site research to determine what Native American people groups are still unreached
  2. Assisting other sending mission agencies to focus on these unreached peoples.
  3. Encouraging the development of a cooperative network whereby mission agencies can target unreached peoples without overlapping with other agencies.
  4. Developing a cooperative training program to help missionaries to focus on reaching people within the frameworks of their cultures. This would include teaching cultural sensitivity and training people to look for what Don Richardson calls "redemptive analogies" (presenting the Gospel through patterns that already exist within a culture).

The INAS recognizes the mandate given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations (people groups) and has accepted the responsibility of doing everything possible to see that the task of the Great Commission is completed among Native Americans.

For further information, write to: Institute of Native American Studies 1605 E. Elizabeth St. Pasadena, CA 91104 Phone: 818/398-2296.


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